Electronic-Warfare Assets Badly Neglected

By Pitts, Joseph R. | National Defense, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Electronic-Warfare Assets Badly Neglected


Pitts, Joseph R., National Defense


Lack of adequate funding is undermining critical war-fighting capability

The history of warfare is often described as a struggle between the offense and the defense. That's a fine framework, if you like football. But there may be better ways of thinking about warfare in the information age.

Perhaps the real military struggle today is between awareness and deception. Each side in a conflict strives to learn as much as possible about an adversary's location, leaders, capabilities, strategy and tactics-while at the same time denying the enemy information about friendly forces.

The effort to gain superior awareness or "knowledge dominance" in combat is as old as warfare itself. But in an era of multispectral sensors, instant communications and precision munitions, dominant knowledge may mean quick, decisive victory, while inferior awareness may mean rapid, crushing defeat. It is not enough, however, to know the enemy. It is equally important that the enemy not know you. Those twin imperatives of modern warfare are the rationale for the burgeoning mission area of "information operations."

The United States has been engaged in at least one form of information warfare for more than half a century. Since the advent of radar in the late 1930s, U.S. airborne forces have played a cat-and-mouse game of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures that has come to be known as electronic warfare (EW). For a variety of bureaucratic and doctrinal reasons, the armed services today prefer to differentiate electronic and information warfare. But from a purely practical perspective, it is obvious that EW has always been about controlling the electromagnetic spectrum in wartime so that we can know the enemy better than he knows us.

Italian air-power theorist Guilio Douhet wrote in his hugely influential treatise, "The Command of the Air," published in 1921, that a prime reason why he believed offensive aircraft would revolutionize warfare was the impossibility of knowing all the possible routes they might use to approach intended targets. Douhet's argument became the wisdom in Europe during the inter-war years, which explains why British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin warned his countrymen in 1932 that "the bomber will always get through."

Fortunately for Britain, the invention of radar on the eve of World War 11 deprived air power of its most critical advantage-surprise-and thus enabled a relatively small defensive force of fighters to prevail in the Battle of Britain. Since that time, it has been apparent to military planners that the success of air campaigns depended upon suppressing enemy defensive sensors while exploiting similar technology, such as precision seekers, for offensive purposes.

In the early years, foiling enemy defenses involved simple techniques such as flying below radar horizons or filling the sky with a blizzard of reflective chaff. But during the Cold War, electronic warfare became an increasingly more complex task of lethal and non-lethal defense suppression, employing sophisticated skills and equipment.

The main reason why electronic warfare grew so complicated was that defenders learned how to adapt to various strategies. Radars became more powerful, more discriminating and more agile. Command and control networks became more resilient and responsive. Surface-to-air missiles became smarter and more numerous. Each time America fought an air campaign-in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf-potential adversaries learned new ways of coping with U.S. EW methods, forcing the Pentagon to come up with more clever electronic counters. …

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